Beating Stress Through Diet
Stress. It’s inevitable. Our lives are filled with demands, both internal and external, which impose stress on your system. If we’ve been well trained by our culture, we reach for salt, sugar, and fat when we’re stressed.
Everyone knows that it’s not wise to fill up on chips, ice cream, and doughnuts when things seem to be going south, but do you know what options will actually help your mind and body relax and perform better? Check out my recommendations for defusing the stress bomb and getting back to your life!
There are several methods of reducing stress, such as herbs, exercise, meditation, and counseling. Today we’re going to focus on foods that will help you stay on top of your game and deal with the daily pressures of life.
What Is Stress?
Most simply, stress is the physical and emotional strain caused by forces, internal or external, in the world. When the body senses stress, a number of things happen. First, your heart starts pounding. As much blood flow as possible is diverted the brain and muscles, up to 400% of normal. Muscles tense and breathing increases, which allows more oxygenated blood to flow where it’s needed.
Stress hormones flood your system to prepare the body to either fight or take flight. The problem is that these days, we still experience the response without it being necessary to respond as we would’ve in millennia past.
It is estimated that up to two-thirds of all doctor visits are for stress-related illnesses. Stress can cause heart disease, strokes, and cancer, but also some less recognized but all too common problems.
How Does It Affect the Body?
At minimum, stress takes its toll on your immune system. It decreases production of key white blood cells that help the body fight infection, leaving us more susceptible to colds and other infections.
When you’re consistently stressed, particularly if you have anger issues, the blood pressure will increase to dangerous levels. This is one of the reasons that heart attacks are so prevalent among those who are often irascible.
Frequent headaches are common among the stressed, as well as digestive upset, fatigue, and back pain. Sexual dysfunction is also common. None of those things is a marker of vibrant health, and frankly they just plain suck.
Cortisol is a bad mamma jamma. Too much of the stuff causes healthy tissues to become weak over time, making muscles and bones fragile. It slows down cell regeneration, impairs digestive function, and can cause weight gain.
People who experience chronic pain often have high cortisol levels, because pain is a stressor to the body. It’s a vicious cycle; stress causing pain, which causes more stress, which causes more pain. And round and round we go.
The body requires a break from stress to be able to repair itself. Diet is certainly one of the best ways to combat high cortisol levels, as it’s an everyday commitment. Consistent, dedicated efforts will help the body relax and begin to heal its ailments.
People who don’t manage their stress levels well, through diet, exercise, counseling, or meditation often become ensnared in addictions as a coping mechanism. Smoking, drug abuse, alcoholism, and binge eating are common. Sexual addiction is also not unheard of in this regard. We’ve talked about ways to increase sex drive with diet, now let’s get to the foods that will help make the rest of your life just as pleasurable!
Best Stress-Busting Foods
Bananas are packed with B vitamins, which keep blood pressure and stress hormones under control when the stress monster is stalking you. They’re fantastic for keeping at the office before a big meeting, as well as munching in the morning to keep head said monster off at the pass.
Leafy greens are one of my favorite things! The one-two punch of calcium and magnesium help muscle fibers relax; fantastic news for those of us who get muscle tension when we’re stressed. The next time your shoulders are up around your ears and you have back spasms, reach for a green smoothie or kale salad!
Tuna and other oily fish are a great help! It’s important to note that only fresh tuna is considered an oily fish, so leave the canned stuff behind when you’re looking for stress relief. The Omega 3s in these swimmers have the power to boost serotonin while regulating cortisol, making them a fantastic addition to your diet two to three times per week.
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, there are some wonderful alternatives to fish. Be sure to look at chia, flax, and hemp seeds to get your daily Omega 3 boost!
Avocados aren’t to be missed if you struggle with stress-related high blood pressure. They’re packed with potassium (like bananas), but can be used in savory applications or even eaten out of hand (I like mine with a little Real Salt).
If you’re not a guacamole fan, why not try this avocado spinach soup? It should have you relaxed and feeling fine in no time!
Kiwi are brown and fuzzy on the outside, but the inside is absolutely packed with green goodness. Did you know that one kiwi has over 100% of the RDA of vitamin C?
Vitamin C is important in more ways than one. It helps strengthen the immune system to fend off stress-related illnesses, which is fantastic. The backdoor benefit of vitamin C is that it lowers both blood pressure and cortisol.
Dark chocolate rounds out the list because, let’s face it, we all need a treat from time to time. A daily square of the dark stuff (and the darker, the better) has been shown to reduce the cortisol levels of study participants.
How? Well, that’s a complex answer. Cocoa has heart-healthy flavinoids. It also contains alkaloids which reduce blood pressure and make the brain happy. Be sure that you don’t overindulge, as chocolate contains caffeine which stresses the system.
I personally prefer around 75% coca for a small treat, but no more than 82%. If you love really dark chocolate, I like the 75% with cacao nibs inside. To. Die. For. Be sure to experiment and find a brand that you truly enjoy. Chocolate is complex and, much like wine, contains flavor compounds unique to where it was produced.
There’s nothing fun or glamorous about recognizing the things that stress you out, but it certainly can lead to better health for your body and your relationships. Try just a few foods on this list to replace some of the junk you usually indulge in, and see if you don’t feel better!